Playing Ball in St. Paul

Party of one: Debbie Montgomery will become the first black woman to serve on the St. Paul City Council
Michael Dvorak

Soon after St. Paul Mayor Randy Kelly took office two years ago, he dismissed former City Council president Dave Thune as the city's supervisor of the housing information office. Last week Thune exacted a measure of revenge, narrowly defeating the mayor's choice for the Second Ward seat on the St. Paul City Council. Running with the support of the DFL and Progressive Minnesota, Thune eked out an 84-vote victory over Christine Nelson, who, in addition to the mayor's blessing, was backed by the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce.

Those votes will likely mean a lot of headaches over the next two years for Kelly. Two of the three candidates in closely contested races that he threw his weight behind were defeated last week. This means that the City Council, which has largely acquiesced to the mayor's whims over the last two years, will be primed to challenge his agenda.

The loss of the Second Ward will have the most significant repercussions for Kelly. Just how important was the race to the mayor? Members of Kelly's administration, including planning director Martha Fuller and senior policy advisor Howard Orenstein, gave money to Nelson's campaign. And in the days preceding the election, voters received a recorded phone message from Kelly urging them to support Nelson.

There are a couple of reasons why Kelly and the Chamber of Commerce committed so much energy to the Second Ward race. Because the district includes downtown, Kelly will pretty much be forced to work with the council member representing that area on any major development deals--a contentious hallmark of his predecessor Norm Coleman's tenure. In addition, the mayor has made it clear that wooing the Minnesota Twins to St. Paul is a high priority, and both potential ballpark sites are located in the returning council member's turf. Therefore, any stadium proposal requiring St. Paul tax dollars would also necessitate the cooperation of Thune.

Unfortunately for Kelly, Thune is unlikely to play ball. During the campaign, the candidate repeatedly questioned the wisdom of spending St. Paul tax dollars to build a Twins stadium, particularly given the city's perilous financial condition. There will now be a vocal majority on the seven-member council opposed to public financing for a stadium. "Depending upon the deal that gets brought to us I would guess that it's D.O.A.," surmises Seventh Ward City Council member Kathy Lantry, an opponent of a city-subsidized stadium.

The notion that he might need to kiss and make up with Thune, who previously served on the council from 1990 to 1998, was apparently not lost on Kelly. Late on election night, the mayor's entourage paid a visit to Mancini's Char House & Lounge, where Thune's supporters were celebrating. "He came over just to shake Thune's hand," says one observer. "He knew very well what the score was."


HISTORIC VICTORY: Debbie Montgomery was the only Kelly-backed candidate to prevail in last week's election. The retired police commander will replace Jerry Blakey, who is stepping down after a decade representing the First Ward, which includes the Frogtown and Summit-University neighborhoods. If Montgomery had lost, there would have been just one black elected official in Ramsey County, school board member Toni Carter.

The former cop beat Bao Vang by bringing out her base (Montgomery won by a whopping 379-65 margin in her home precinct) and pulling a surprisingly large number of votes from precincts south of Interstate 94. Those neighborhoods are wealthier and whiter than most of the ward, and polled heavily for Stuart Alger and Vic Rosenthal in the primary election. "In the end Debbie just had too much of a reach into the community from her old relationships, and I think ultimately that's what got her the victory," surmises Rosenthal.

Nobody can question Montgomery's neighborhood ties. The 57-year-old St. Paul native lives a block from where she grew up. Her 78-year-old mother, Gloria Wilson, who was on hand at the election-night celebration at Fabulous Fern's Bar and Grill on Selby Avenue, is a St. Paul native too.

Billy Collins, executive director of the YWCA of St. Paul, grew up with Montgomery in the old Rondo neighborhood. On election night, Collins claimed that Montgomery was a better hockey player than any of the boys on the local pee-wee squad. "She couldn't play because she was a woman, but she could outskate us all," he laughed. (He also claimed that she could outslug baseball Hall of Famer and fellow St. Paulite Dave Winfield.)

At Fern's, Montgomery appeared to be back in skating shape. "I've lost 25 pounds and I have knocked on every house in this ward," she told her supporters, amid bursts of confetti. "For those of you who didn't see me it's because you weren't there."

Montgomery was St. Paul's first black female police officer, which gives her a unique constituency: Cops and blacks were in full force at Fern's. But as the city's first female council member of color, and given Kelly's support, Montgomery has her work cut out in uniting seemingly disparate supporters. For instance, Kelly has admitted that he didn't pull the black vote two years ago, but still says Montgomery's election was a "historic night for St. Paul."

Montgomery, for her part, denies that she's beholden to Kelly. "I appreciate the mayor's support, but I've walked every ward in this city," Montgomery says. "I'm working for the citizens."



LORD FLETCHER: There's been considerable talk in recent weeks about the possibility of recalling Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher, owing to his actions at last month's Fifth Ward debate at Arlington Senior High School. A quick recap: After a question of a "personal" nature was asked of City Council candidate Kris Reiter at the close of the debate, Fletcher threw a fit. He demanded that the moderator turn over the stack of questions to him and threatened to sue the St. Paul League of Women Voters. The sheriff's detractors are claiming that the high-handed behavior was an abuse of power and that he should be removed from office.

The good news for Fletcher is that it's nearly impossible to recall an elected official in Minnesota. The state's recall provision, adopted in 1996, requires that the Minnesota Supreme Court determine an elected official has engaged in "serious malfeasance or nonfeasance" while in office. Once that formidable hurdle has been cleared, petition signatures totaling 25 percent of the turnout in the last general election for that office must be collected.

"My prediction is that there will never ever be anyone recalled in our state under that provision," says David Schultz, a professor of government and public administration at Hamline University.

However, Schultz points out a more realistic scenario for how Fletcher might be removed from office. Schultz sits on the Ramsey County Charter Commission and reports that, in light of the sheriff's recent shenanigans, there was talk at last week's meeting about the possibility of changing the sheriff's office from an elected to an appointed position. Any such modification would have to be approved by voters, most likely next November. "No way on recall," summarizes Schultz, "but I think you could have a different battle on this front."

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